Covert mission payback for raids


Texas History

At Bird’s Fort north of present-day Arlington, the Snively Expedition officially disbanded on Aug. 7, 1843, and the dispirited members went their separate ways.

Seven tense years after San Jacinto, a state of war still existed between the independent province and its estranged mother country. On the diplomatic front, Mexico refused to recognize Texas’ sovereignty and periodically threatened full-scale retaliation. And it was not empty talk, as hardly a calendar went by without rifles replacing rhetoric in brief but bloody conflicts.

In June 1841, President Mirabeau Lamar tried to put teeth in the Lone Star claim to New Mexico, but the Santa Fe excursion was fatally flawed by poor preparation. The 300 Pioneers were taken prisoner without a shot being fired, and they languished in Mexican dungeons until their release the following spring.

Mexico responded in 1842 with back-to-back occupations of San Antonio, swift strikes that raised the ominous specter of an all-out invasion. A counterpunch stalled at the Rio Grande, where mutinous volunteers crossed the border and fought a Christmas Day battle against tremendous odds at the Mexican town of Mier. Their surrender increased by 200 the number of Texans in enemy hands.

Next, it was the Republic’s turn, and the war department approved a secret scheme to raid Mexican caravans along the Santa Fe Trail. Given a license to loot, prairie pirate Jacob Snively planned to bleed the trade route dry.

The colonel’s clandestine instructions were quite explicit. The government authorized a maximum force of 300 for the covert operation and claimed “one half of all the spoils taken in honorable warfare” even though the members of the “strictly partisan” expedition had to pay their own expenses.

The key condition of the mission impossible let the Republic off the hook. In case of trouble, Snively was completely on his own. Texas officials would deny any knowledge of his activities and not lift a finger to help.

At a North Texas rendezvous east of present-day Gainesville, the colonel counted 150 heads. Prior to their April 1843 departure, the recruits decided to call themselves “The Battalion of Invincibles,” a vainglorious title the merry band soon found mighty hard to live up to.

Within a month, the Texans reached the intersection of the Arkansas River and the famed wilderness corridor that connected St. Louis and Santa Fe. Though in western Kansas on current maps, back in those days, the expedition was well within the vast confines of their huge homeland.

While the Invincibles waited for promising prey to pass by, a kindred soul stumbled into camp. Not so fresh from a raid into New Mexico, Charles A. Warfield was relieved to find friendly faces. In the 10th month of a similar assignment, the Missourian had no plunder to show for all his trouble.

As Snively and Warfield compared notes, a Mexican patrol suddenly crashed the party. A furious fight ensued with the Texans quickly gaining the upper hand. Snively reported 17 enemy soldiers killed and the balance of the 100-man column taken prisoner without the loss of a single life.

However, not a caravan one was sighted in the monotonous weeks that followed resulting in the erosion of the morale and discipline among the bored Texans. In late June, the battalion split in two with “the mountaineers” sticking with Snively and “the home boys” plotting a separate course under an ambitious adjutant.

The Snively faction was surprised two days later by a superior foe not from the land of Santa Anna but from Missouri – a detachment of U.S. Army dragoons escorting Mexican traders down the Santa Fe Trail. The arrogant officer in charge settled the argument over whether the United States or Texas had jurisdiction by ordering the alleged trespassers to drop their weapons.

Clearly unconcerned his conduct was certain to cause an international incident, the American captain confiscated all but 10 rifles, leaving Snively to the not so tender mercy of any Mexicans, Indians or outlaws that happened along. As an afterthought, he offered the anxious Texans a lift to Missouri, and 50 bid their colonel farewell.

For the sake of their mutual survival, the “mountaineers” and “home boys” closed ranks. But mouths remained wide-open, and constant bickering created a revolving door in the chain of command. When Snively finally regained control, the only issue up for discussion was which route to take back to Texas.

The disillusioned adventurers not only went home empty-handed but also wound up getting the blame in many history books for a vicious murder committed by renegade defectors from the Warfield Party. It was enough to make a prairie pirate wish he had gone down with the ship.

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